Home > Uncategorized > The legend of Westvleteren

The legend of Westvleteren

November 4, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

There have been far greater pursuits in life, that I will not debate.

However, I will say my quest the past three months had been extremely trying, frustrating, time-consuming, and up until yesterday at 11:16 a.m., utterly fruitless. My goal was not to acquire a full-time job (the part-time gig is great) or anything of a serious nature.

It was to get a beer.

It sounds simple, especially in Belgium, where beer is prevalent and drinking is practically a birthright (the Belgian legal drinking age is 16, whereas the legal driving age, thankfully, is 18). But you’re about to learn — if you don’t get bored and can make it through my longest-ever post — what made attaining this specific beer so difficult.

Westvleteren (pronounced West-vleh-tuh-rin) is no ordinary beer. For starters, the beer is brewed by monks in the centuries-old Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in northeastern Belgium, an area called Flanders. Monks brew these beers — classified as “Trappist beers” — for only one purpose: to generate funds to support their monastic life. Aside from Westvletern, only six other monasteries, five which are also in Belgium, can legally brew beers under the Trappist label.

One can purchase Westvleteren only from the abbey where it is brewed — legally. I throw that technicality in there because you might see Westvleteren for sale on ebay or craigslist or similar sites. But buyer’s beware: Not only will you pay an exorbitant price — sometimes as much as $20 for a 12-ounce bottle — but it is illegal for any individual to resell this beer.

The monks strictly forbid it, noting on their website they reserve the right to prosecute for this offense. They even make you sign a waiver agreeing to this stipulation when you purchase the beer.

westymonks

Like most people, the Monks' morning Bible study is followed by making sure the day's beer is on schedule.

“We brew to live, but don’t live to brew,” a monk at the Westvleteren abbey said in an interview. “We want to be a local brewery and produce enough beer to support ourselves and our endeavors — and no more.  We need time for our spiritual lives.”

Thus, the supply is very low. Low as in they only sell the beer about 50 days out of the year. The monks brew just enough beer to generate money for 1) the electricity bill and 2) donations to charity. The demand, however, is enormous, thanks partly to specialty web sites like this and this, which rank the Westvleteren 12 as the best or second-best beer in the world.

The monks, therefore, set up a system to prevent any unscrupulous, conniving individual from obtaining loads of Westvleteren with the purpose of reselling and making a profit. On its website, the abbey has enumerated exactly how to purchase the beer, but I’ll give you a quick rundown.

About 50 days out of the year, and only for a few hours on those certain days, an individual must call the “beer hotline” to place an order. The monk on the other end of the line books an appointment for you to come to the abbey and pick up the beer.

In exchange, you must give them the license plate number of your car. When you arrive at the abbey to pick up the beer, you must be driving the car with the license plate number you provided over the phone.

Sounds easy enough, but take into account this warning from the web site: Please keep in mind that our telephone lines can have very long queues and that you might get a busy signal. We thank you in advance for your patience and your understanding.

Might hear a busy signal? That’s like telling a surfer you might hear the sound of crashing waves when you’re out on the ocean.

Add up all the busy signals I’ve heard while attempting to place an order and you’d get a 90-minute album of “beep beep beep.” Granted, that would be a terrible album to listen to, but I still might prefer that over most country music.

These past few months, the pursuit of Westvleteren had a way of tantalizing me. I know that for a fact, because I took mythology at Baylor, where I learned the god Tantalus was punished for some misgiving by being forced to forever stand beside a fruit tree. Any time Tantalus got the urge to eat, he’d reach for a piece of fruit, but he could never quite get his hand on it. From that god’s name we get the word tantalize. (Don’t let this story fool you, I got a C- in this class, which might be news to my parents.)

As mentioned, the “beer hotline” is only open for 2-3 hours on certain days of the year, usually with a 9 a.m. start time. Thinking of a way to beat the system, my original phone-calling strategy was to preempt the advertised time and starting calling around 8:55 a.m. Busy signal. Hang up, wait 5-6 seconds, call again. Busy signal. Repeat that over the next couple hours.

With every unsuccessful call, I had this naive hope that I’d get a human on the phone with the very next ring. So many times before I heard that monotonous busy signal, I heard a slight click, like the sound of someone picking up a phone off the receiver. That always caused my hear to skip a beat. I got through!

Nope, just another tantalization. A moment after that click, the beep beep beep would chime in again, signaling my latest defeat. Nothing but a sonic mirage.

Sometimes I would waste an entire morning making a call every other minute during that three-hour window. I’d call from home or while on the metro heading to work. In the car with Jenna driving somewhere. If my memory serves me well, I think I even gave my parents, in town for a few days in September, the silent treatment for a couple hours just so I could place calls into the abbey.

Frustration soon boiled over. I started researching other means by which to get a Westvleteren. The search led me to a blog written by a fellow American expat living in Brussels (a real-life professional beer writer). In one of his posts, the writer documented the step-by-step process of acquiring Westvleteren. No new information here, no secret trick, until I got to this statement:

For the record: It’s never taken me longer than 45 minutes to get through. Sometimes it’s only 5 or 10 minutes.

The braggadocio of this guy! First of all, he’s flaunting the fact he can acquire the most sought-after beer in the world in the time it takes me to drive to the grocery store and back just to get an average Stella. Secondly, he says sometimes, implying he has been successful at this quest more than once. The nerve of this guy.

So I went back and read his Westvleteren manifesto once again when I found another nugget: Perfect the art of quickly hanging up and hitting redial. If you’re quick enough and do it for long enough, you will get through. Ahh, a new method. Press redial immediately after getting the busy signal. With this latest piece of intelligence, I set off with this new tactic at 9:30 a.m. yesterday.

I poured a cup of coffee. I answered a few emails. I did a little work for my part-time job. I threw a load of laundry into the washer. All the while I had my mobile phone in my hand, pressing the call button over and over each time I heard that familiar busy signal.

More than an hour and a half later into this new technique, still no progress. It was a quarter past 11, the ordering window closed at noon (and would not reopen until Thursday), and I was close to surrendering another lost morning to the pursuit Westvleteren.

Then 11:16 came. It could’ve been the 115th or 1,115th time my thumb pressed the redial button on my mobile, I’m not sure. But that’s immaterial. Instead of hearing the quick “beep beep beep,” I heard these long, extended “beeeeeeeeeeeeeps.” It was the glorious sound of the European telephone ring.

It rang, rang, and rang again. Doubt started creeping in. I feared Westvleteren was tantalizing me again. But then the ring stopped. I heard a man’s voice. What he said, I don’t know. He was speaking Dutch, after all.

Sometimes, when you meet a famous person — someone you’ve perhaps idolized for many years — you can’t find the words to speak. Awe has consumed your body and mind.

That was never a threat. I immediately assumed that the guy on the other end — probably a monk who spent his morning doing God’s work, not wasting nearly two hours trying to get a beer — could understand English. I launched into my declaration of intent to purchase Westvleteren from his abbey.

And from there, it was seamless. I gave him my license plate number, he gave me an appointment (this coming Monday at 2:45 p.m.), and that was it. I am officially halfway toward landing the very best beer in the world.

But don’t go thinking this was an entirely selfish pursuit. I plan to give some away to co-workers, to Jenna’s boss (he’s been here three years and has never had a Westvleteren), to the friends I’ve made here, and if there’s any left, I might bring some home at Christmas.

Don’t worry — I don’t plan to charge anyone a dime.

westypic

The Westveletern beer, in all its monkish glory.

———————————————————————-

Bonus coverage: In a literary version of those outtakes you see at the end of movies (or on the special features of DVDs), here are some of the rejected headlines for today’s blog:

> Cruising for a brewsing

> Monk, he sees; Monk, he brews

> The Pursuit of Hop(iness)

> PICK UP THE PHONE!!!!!!!

> Holy water ….. with a bit of yeast, hops, malt and sugar

> Beer 3:16

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. MIL THE BONZ
    November 5, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    HAPPY the hunt is over and did we ever doubt that SIL would be sucessful in his pursuit of the perfect beer. I am curious to see if it lives up to its hype!

    • laviebelge
      November 6, 2009 at 4:46 pm

      I’ve been told by beer enthusiasts the story of how you get the beer could be better than the beer itself … but I’ll let you know on Monday night.

  2. Trey
    November 6, 2009 at 9:11 am

    All we have here is Trappist cheese.

  3. Denise Cipolla
    November 8, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Heard about this great adventure, but much better in your own words Jake. I’m a friend of your mom-in-law’s. Thanks for sharing !

  4. lyda salmons
    November 11, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Love the beer story ! My husband would gladly trade places with you ! Admire the tenacity.

    …..am a friend and co-worker of Bonnie.

  5. Alan
    September 12, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Cool to hear your story man, and glad it had a happy ending. I am a fellow Westvleteren vet, although my experience was much easier. Some military coworkers and I simply drove to the brewery, and found that while it was closed, you can actually buy the beer by the six-pack at the cafe across the street from the brewery. It’s called Cafe In De Vrede, and their site is http://www.indevrede.be/languagee/index.htm It is the only alternative way to get the beer that I am aware of, legally at least. We tried each of the three brews at the cafe, then loaded up our rental station wagon with 6 cases worth of the beer. The poor car looked like the springs were about to cave in LOL! I brought mine home to the states with me and enjoyed it with my family. They also sell T-shirts etc at this Cafe. I’ve received some rather incredulous looks and comments on the shirt at times.

    • laviebelge
      September 15, 2010 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Alan. I’ve actually been back to Westleteren two times since this trip. On the first trip I stopped by the cafe and grabbed an extra six-pack and have done that each time since. I definitely won’t move back to the states without a Westy t-shirt … that’s instant street cred!

  6. November 12, 2013 at 2:37 am

    For the moment there is only one trustworthy site where you can buy westies for a reasonable price, and it’s on http://www.westvleterenshop.com .. for the rest, in my opinion, just avoid them

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